Athletes spend a lot of time analyzing Olympic performances; scientists, engineers, and artists are also fascinated by “genius.” But what is a genius? How is one made? Can I be one, or can I at least raise my children to be geniuses? And should I even do that? What are the drawbacks?
Manzocco explores all these questions and more in this book. From historical and linguistic aspects to artificial intelligence (AI), the book presents centuries of thought and research on genius and related topics, including creativity, neurology, psychology, and environmental factors.
The first chapter discusses the shifting meaning of genius throughout history, including questionable practices such as phrenology as well as more acceptable scientific approaches, and back to the cult of genius and eugenics.
The second chapter is devoted to various traits that are associated with genius in one way or another. The most obvious are creativity and intelligence, as popularly (though perhaps not always accurately) measured by intelligence quotient (IQ). Less measurable--but arguably more important--is wisdom, as demonstrated through judgment.
Talent and giftedness are also relevant, and there have been attempts to classify and quantify these. Lastly, charisma may not be required in order for a genius to create, but it does play an important role in other people’s awareness of the genius. Without such awareness, research will ignore these “unrecognized geniuses” (and some scholars will deny them the title of genius in the first place).
Chapter 3 presents a “Darwinian theory of genius.” This theory is not about the hereditary traits that culminate in genius, but rather a description of a genius’s mental processes when interacting with their environment in terms of random variation and selection. The former involves the creation of many ideas, while the latter discards those that are not productive. An abundance of ideas is necessary to avoid missing unusual but highly profitable ones; but careful selection is required to discover the few original and propitious ideas that other people do not find.
New and radical ideas often appear as insights through “dream states” or serendipity. These are fascinating topics, although difficult to study scientifically. They are often correlated with the ability to bring together concepts from disparate fields and create new associations between them. Another related property is tolerance for ambiguity, which prevents the premature elimination of directions that could be profitable but are nonobvious.
This theory leads, in the next chapter, to a discussion of the neurological basis for genius, as well as disorders summed up in the popular phrase “mad genius.” The association between creativity and mood disorders is claimed to be quite strong, and goes both ways, through extraordinary flexibility of mental associations. The claim is usually made for artistic creativity, although it also exists in prominent scientists. This leads to the question of whether creativity is reduced when the disorders are treated. An obvious extension of this topic is the relationship between creativity and psychotropic drugs; these can affect creativity, either positively or negatively.
A well-known debate, which goes much beyond genius, is that of nature versus nurture. This is discussed in chapter 5 and followed by other considerations such as birth order (first born or last born), age (child prodigies or late bloomers), dedication to a subject or accumulating a variety of experiences, perfectionism, preferring isolation or being outgoing, and more.
There are certainly differences between geniuses in the arts and geniuses in science. Chapter 6 is devoted specifically to scientific genius and the related psychological, sociological, and cultural aspects.
The next chapter is devoted to popular self-help methods for becoming a genius, or at least increasing creativity. These include a growth mindset, deliberate practice, and motivation. One interesting (yet debatable) concept is that of the “10000-hour rule”--the amount of effort and practice allegedly required to master any skill. Another is the need to push your limits, which implies that if you are having fun, you are not advancing yourself. (On the other hand, it seems to me that enjoying your work, at least part of the time, is a great motivator!)
The final chapter deals with creativity, discovery, and transcendence of machines. This chapter is relatively short and rightly so--these topics are widely covered in popular and scientific publications.
The book is written in a mixed style, sometimes quite colloquial (“and whatnot”) and sometimes using domain-specific jargon. It sometimes goes off on tangents that seem unrelated to its main topic. It would also have benefited from a thorough editing, which would have removed typographical errors, internal comments not meant for publication, and other artifacts. Manzocco provides many references that should help readers who want a deeper dive into any of the topics discussed in the book.